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Gordon urges focus on budget, property taxes; defends energy policy

In his annual State of the State address, the governor rebutted his critics, took shots at the Biden administration and called on lawmakers to focus on “solutions” and “not politics.”

Gov. Mark Gordon delivers his State of the State address to the Wyoming Legislature on Feb. 12, 2024 in Cheyenne. (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

by Maggie Mullen and Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

CHEYENNE—As the 2024 legislative session convened Monday, Gov. Mark Gordon encouraged lawmakers in his annual State of the State address to “do what needs to be done,” by providing property tax relief, passing a balanced budget and defending coal, among other things. 

“Wyoming is as strong as it has ever been,” Gordon said. “Our economy is growing, our spirits are soaring and the future is ours to craft.”

State lawmakers gave Gordon a hearty welcome, and during his remarks little dissent could be seen amongst them — including GOP members who have taken to fiercely criticizing the governor in recent months. 

As for session priorities, the second-term governor made it clear that he and leadership are on the same page — the budget and property taxes rise to the top of the list. More specifically, Gordon encouraged lawmakers to fund the state’s property tax refund program and asked that they pass a “conservative and balanced budget.” 

In many ways, Gordon’s speech echoed previous remarks, including those he made to lawmakers last session — particularly the shots he took at the federal government. 

“As governor, I cannot be as blunt as my rancher core wants me to be,” Gordon said. Instead, he borrowed a phrase from Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the famous Gulf War military leader. 

“The Biden energy policy is pure, unadulterated ‘bovine scatology,’” he said.

Lawmakers clap as Gov. Mark Gordon prepares to deliver his State of the State address to the Wyoming Legislature on Feb. 12, 2024 in Cheyenne. (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

Ranching metaphors abounded — another hallmark of Gordon’s speeches. Legislatures, for example, are akin to a branding crew, he said. 

“They come together every year for a few days with specific work to get done,” he said. “Job one this year is to pass a budget. You have a good crew, and though there are lots of opinions, there is also commitment and expertise.” 

But when a branding goes bad — such as when someone tries to “tackle a calf like a linebacker” — things fall apart. 

“Chaos ensues,” Gordons said. “Like what we see in Washington, D.C.

“An excellent branding crew, like an excellent Legislature, does its work with an eye to what is important.” 

In particular, Gordon cautioned lawmakers against the kind of chaotic distractions that may be tempting during an election year. 

Lawmakers will also have to navigate circumstances that are different from the last few years, Gordon said. 

“It’s been a while since we’ve seen the normal budget cycle,” he said. 

Gov. Mark Gordon delivers his State of the State address to the Wyoming Legislature on Feb. 12, 2024 in Cheyenne. (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

It’s the beginning of the end of the federal relief funds that bailed Wyoming out of its last financial bust. And while the long-term revenue picture remains volatile for Wyoming, the immediate horizon is rosy. Last year was more lucrative than forecasters predicted, providing more money for lawmakers to consider while budgeting.

Gordon spoke glowingly about Wyoming’s economy, saying the state’s gross domestic product is the “highest it’s ever been,” referencing GDP figures which are not adjusted for inflation. 

Confronting criticism

In recent months, the hard-line Wyoming Freedom Caucus has fiercely criticized Gordon’s long-touted energy policy, particularly his stance on climate change and carbon capture. 

It’s a stance he’s made clear for some years now, including in his 2022 State of the State. But shortly after he shared those views at a Harvard University event, 30 GOP lawmakers ignited a media frenzy by accusing him of making a “sweeping policy change.” 

Rep. John Bear, the chairman of the hard-line Wyoming Freedom Caucus, listens as Gov. Mark Gordon delivers his State of the State address to the Wyoming Legislature on Feb. 12, 2024 in Cheyenne. (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

“As governor, I have and will continue to use the bully pulpit of my office to engage friends and skeptics across the country about the necessity of investing in fossil energy and mining natural resources,” Gordon said Monday. 

“While I felt like a pilgrim in an unholy land, I took our cause to Harvard University, in the very belly of the beast,” Gordon said. “I delivered them the inconvenient truth that coal, oil, and natural gas are vital to all of our futures, including theirs.”

While vowing to never shy away from standing up to the federal government, Gordon praised county governments for being the closest to the people. 

Local government resources

Funding for local governments is in a precarious position this session since some property-tax bills risk cutting off revenue streams they rely on. 

“Property tax reform is a complex issue affecting county resources, roads, and schools among other issues, yet it is also pressing,” Gordon said. “I have no doubt this Legislature will seek a balance that properly addresses citizens’ concerns about rising assessed valuations without leaving counties or schools high and dry.”

Gordon added that he was encouraged by the approach taken in House Bill 45 — which would create a property tax cap for single-family homes. The fiscal impact of the bill is indeterminable, according to the Legislative Service Office. 

Gov. Mark Gordon is interviewed at the Wyoming Capitol on Feb. 12, 2024. (WyoFile/Ashton J. Hacke)

Gordon partly attributed increasing property taxes to population growth, saying Wyoming is “on a roll,” becoming a magnet for new residents. 

“Evidently others share my appreciation for Wyoming’s approach to government because many have decided to make Wyoming their new home,” Gordon said. “I imagine they admire our conservative values and commitment to freedom and our fiercely independent nature. It’s great to have new neighbors.”

While Wyoming is growing, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, it lags well behind other Mountain West states, including Montana, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. 

Gordon then passed the baton to lawmakers, who now have four weeks to pass a budget and sort through more than 200 other bills. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.